Some of this interview originally appeared in tn2 Magazine.
“Immersive” and “site-specific” were the buzzwords in theatre for 2014. Festival programmes were inundated with participatory performances following in the footsteps of industry leaders like England’s hugely successful Punchdrunk. Whole warehouses, sometimes even whole sides of town, have been taken over by these pioneering companies, hoping to engulf their audiences for the ultimate level of engagement. So much fuss has been made over these new dramatic heights, but what does all this innovation mean for the theatregoer? What happens when the spectator becomes part of the performance? tn2 spoke to practitioners of this kind of work about how they handle an immersed audience.
San Francisco’s Odyssey Works produce durational single-audience works. Most recently, the company tailor-made a three-month performance for the author Rick Moody which infiltrated all aspects his life in New York City, even flying him to Canada for one ephemeral encounter. Their other participants haven’t been famous, and their application process is open to anyone, followed by months of immersion in the successful applicant’s life for the team before any “performance” begins. We spoke to members of the Odyssey team: Abraham Burickson, Artistic Director; Ayden L.M.Grout, Director of Documentation; Jen Harmon, Director of Acting and Choreography; Ariel Abrahams, Director of Public Interaction.
Could you give us an insight into what makes the ideal participant?
Ariel: There is no ideal participant. At the start of every odyssey there is an application process. The process has three steps: a short online questionnaire, a very long autobiographic assignment, and for those who we feel are right, an in person interview. We trust that the right participant — whatever that means — will come to us.
It is a complicated process, but to be brief — and secretive — our decision comes down to three factors:
- Does it feel right? We discuss each participant in depth at our meetings. So much of the process is from the heart. How does the applicant make you feel? If they feel right, you just know it. These meetings are very funny. We get so passionate; it’s like an election! An election with too many candidates…
- Is the applicant emotionally stable enough for us to give an Odyssey to? We get so many applications from a wide variety of people. In the realm of those applying for a life-changing experience, a percentage are very unhappy and unstable. We make it clear that we are not art-therapists, and we do not take on subjects whom we do not think we can handle.
- Can we find someone who is very unlike our last participant? We like to change it up. If our last participant was a woman, maybe this time we’ll choose a man. If they were young, let’s find someone older. Rick was very different than Laura, the last participant in San Francisco, which means that the entire performance and preparation structure is different too.
How much is your work at the whim of their family and friends?
Ariel: I have never thought about our work being “at the whim” of family and friends, but I think you are right to use that language. We work with the family very closely, and they could blow our cover in a heartbeat if they wanted to. At the same time, we are very careful to gauge our trust with everyone involved in the project, including collaborating artists, the public, and even the participant. The process of making an Odyssey is a process of building trust, in order to produce a magical experience that appears to be working all on its own — and sometimes is! Making the Odyssey is so much richer an experience when the family and friends help. It becomes a community effort and a celebration of friendship through the subject. The Odyssey can very quickly become a life-changing experience for one person to a lives-changing experience for everyone involved.
How much of your plan has to be adapted during the work according to the audience’s needs, and how much can you comfortably put faith in your own original plan to see the participant through to the end?
Jen: This really depends on the particular project. It can sometimes be a delicate balance between keeping with what we established and allowing for the piece to morph as needed. We are specific about each scene’s form and content and where it fits in the overall arc of the work, considering elements like tempo, duration, tone, etc. Our team spends a great deal of time researching the person and working together to make the structure of the piece so we have confidence in our initial groundwork and outline. At the same time, we are responsive to the participant during the time leading up to the Odyssey and on the day itself. It is a dialogue. At times we allow the participants own experience to guide us throughout the Odyssey. I view our plan as a “score” with set and detailed areas as well as open portions. This is an exciting and alive part of our working methodology. It is also important to make space for the feelings and thoughts of the participant and for their agency to be expressed throughout the experience. We want the participant to bring their full selves to the journey.
For you as a director, and all of the members of the team who don’t get to be with the participant all of the time, how do you cope with not being able to see the effects on the participant at each stage?
Abe: There is so much that I miss, and so much that we all miss. We have to rely on the actors, dancers, etc., to provide feedback, certainly. But, in a way, the performance happens only in the experience of the person who is experiencing it — this is central to the way we understand our work. What is the moment of a person reading a book we have written? What is the moment of art there? It is not the book itself — that’s just the vehicle for the experience. It is, rather, the moment when the participant opens the book and comes across a theme in it that resonates with his understanding of life, and then connections are made. Then it is also the moment when that theme arises again in his life, by accident as he is walking down the street and looking into a shop window and overhearing a conversation there that is related. This is the real artwork, and we can only get the full reporting back from the participant himself. And then, too, it is always partial, of course, as it is at the frail whims of memory.
Is there anything that particularly worries you during the performance?
Ayden: There are a thousand things that can and will go wrong at some point during an Odyssey, but usually we are all so focused on making those things come together, that I don’t have time to worry. With Rick’s piece, a whole symbolic section of his journey was thwarted by the weather. He was supposed to sail from Brooklyn to Sandy Hook, NJ and hear a musical composition that had been surfacing in his life for several months. Then he would have a Homeric journey home the next day. It was a beautifully sunny, clear day but unfortunately it was dangerously windy for sailing and we had to reshuffle the entire evening on the fly that afternoon. It was disappointing, and yet, because that was just one piece of a massive undertaking, we didn’t have time to focus too much on mourning that one component even though I’m sure it would have been particularly memorable.
Is there any element of post-performance support, or are the participants left to process the experience by themselves?
Ayden: We do a debrief between a week and a month after the performance with the participant and main creative contributors. We spend an hour, interviewing and discussing the piece and its effects with the participant and we briefly share our own responses. At the debrief, our participant is allowed to ask any questions. Sometimes this is where our literary forgeries and website hacks are revealed, but sometimes participants don’t want to know everything because it disrupts the surface of reality in their experience of the Odyssey.
As for other post-performance support, we leave it in the participant’s hands to further pursue a relationship. While often we would love to be friends with our audience, I imagine it’s overwhelming for them to know where to begin. They have made themselves so incredibly, beautifully vulnerable to us, sharing some of their most private feelings and experiences, and yet they know next to nothing about our team. In the process of devoting ourselves so much to make this singular experience, we fall in love, but there’s a bit of imbalance in that relationship and I’’ve always been a bit sad about how one-sided it is. I think a lot about Lewis Hyde’s book “The Gift” and have come to believe that though it can be hard to build a long-term relationship with a participant, our hope is that they might strive to see the people in their life with the same clarity and attentiveness that we have given them, and to continue passing on the gift of being seen to others.
You’ve had an actor arrested while performing, can you tell us about any other impediments like that?
Abe: Oh boy, we’ve had a lot of run-ins with police. It is striking how easy it is to run afoul of the standard ways of doing things, and to stick out. We’ve never had real legal problems, thank God, though we’ve had a few annoying tickets to pay. Even at our most recent performance, part of which happened at a museum in San Francisco, the guards were very very worried about us, and tried to break us up and keep us out many times, even though we were just doing what you are supposed to be doing in a museum, though with more intensity I overheard one guard talking to another: “What are they doing?” and the other replied: “I don’t know, I think they’re looking at the art?” as if it were the weirdest thing in the world. Many impediments come up, and plans go awry, in every performance, but we make backup plans always, and we stay on our toes. The productions aren’t static, really, and they are all improvised, because we want that uncertainty and dynamism that accompany the sense of the real.
Could you summarize your ultimate goal in these works?
Jen: The ultimate goal is to create moving artwork. Art which communicates truths about the human condition. It is our intention to investigate complex ideas with a high level of craft and aesthetics and to fearlessly search for the meaning and the greatest impact we can have with the participant. When we focus our attention on how one person perceives the world and their particular narrative material, we also uncover similar aspects running through our own lives and can find points of connection between us. This process serves as a touchstone for the creation of art that has the potential for a deep and lasting impact, that is what we are after.
Can you tell us about your upcoming London work?
Abe: We are so thrilled to be going to London in 2016. There is still much that is up in the air, but I think we’ll be there in the second half of the year. The Battersea Arts Centre will be hosting us and co-producing an Odyssey there, and we hope to be collaborating with some wonderful local artists. I imagine we’ll have the call for applications open to London residents starting somewhere in early 2016. People can keep apprised of calls for applications by signing up at our website (http://www.odysseyworks.org/news/) or following us on twitter (@odysseyworks). Whoever we end up doing the production for will go through a rather long application process, but, when chosen, will be given the experience free of charge. We will also be looking for additional people to become participants in a different way.